Capital budget request down 22% from fiscal '94

March 30, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker sent the County Council an austere $63 million capital budget yesterday that is sure to provoke debate in two areas: public education and road resurfacing.

The budget proposal is the smallest request Mr. Ecker has made during his three-year term -- $18 million, or 22 percent, below the county's capital budget of a year ago and $27.5 million less than requested by department chiefs for fiscal 1995.

Although school projects account for 61 percent of Mr. Ecker's overall proposal and 79 percent of that money would come from selling county bonds, the proposal is still $2.5 million less than the school board sought.

The problem with Mr. Ecker's proposed budget, school officials say, is that one project -- the new $24 million eastern county high school planned for Long Reach -- is taking a $1.26 million cut.

"That's the bugaboo," said School Board Chairman Dana F. Hanna. "It's going to have a noticeable effect in the end product. I don't know if I am willing to roll over and play dead on that one."

The planned school is nearly ready for construction bids, said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations. More than half of the needed bonds -- $15 million worth -- had been authorized previously and the school has been designed on the assumption that it would be fully funded, Mr. Cousin said. "Hopefully, [bids] will come in under budget" he said. "There's a possibility they could come in higher. We'll have to wait and see. It wouldn't be wise to delay."

Unlike other portions of the proposed budget, school money cut by the executive can be restored by the County Council. To do so, however, the council would have to cut some other budget category by an equal amount or raise property taxes enough to make up the difference.

Mr. Hanna is hopeful the council will do one or the other.

"One reason we're having to tear down Wilde Lake [High School rather than make renovations] is that it was very cheap when we built it," he said.

He does not want the county to do the same thing again. Cutting $1.3 million out of a $24 million project is "a sizable chop," Mr. Hanna said.

Mr. Hanna knows that getting the extra money will not be easy. Eight out of every $10 of local bond financing would go to the school system already under Mr. Ecker's proposal. Also, the $33.2 million in local bond issues is $8 million above the threshold recommended by a budget advisory committee.

"It would not be the first time the county has taken a stance other than the one recommended" by the task force assigned to recommend budget ceilings to the executive and the council, Mr. Hanna said. "They have a very conservative view. I don't know what the final straw is leading the county into bankruptcy 20 years from now, but we are the very safe side of it."

Election year politics could play a role, Mr. Hanna said, in that council members "don't want to look too frivolous, yet do not want to appear chintzy" in funding what many acknowledge as the best school system in the state.

One of the places the council might turn if members are inclined to restore the eastern high school money is road resurfacing. In the past, the county has paid for road resurfacing out of so-called pay-as-you-go funds, but this year, Mr. Ecker wants to do it using short-term bonds.

Road resurfacing was the first thing cut when the county was forced into austerity budgets, Mr. Ecker said, because "it represented a large chunk of money in one place that could be cut without an immediate impact."

"We can no longer responsibly defer road resurfacing," Mr. Ecker told the council in his budget message. "Therefore, I have made a short-term deviation from county policy" by recommending that the county issue $3 million in five-year bonds to resurface its deteriorating roads. "When our revenues have stabilized, we should return to pay-as-you-go funding," he told the council.

Council members are expected to agree that getting on with road resurfacing is a priority, but may disagree with the bonding idea. Council members, Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, and Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, have said recently that the county should start using some of its $7 million reserves now for projects such as road resurfacing.

Mr. Ecker told the council that his trimming of the school board request is part of his overall plan to reduce the cost of building, furnishing and operating all of county's facilities.

"If we do not slow the rate of growth in our debt, we will guarantee an increase in the tax rate . . . or a loss of service to our citizens" or both, Mr. Ecker told the council in his budget message. "Neither choice is acceptable," he said.

In shaving this year's budget, Mr. Ecker directed department heads to re-evaluate and revise the way they estimate and plan capital projects.

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